If art reflects life, then making art is a process that can be examined to help us navigate life itself.
Ed Catmull was there at the beginning, when the concept of computer animation was but a pipe dream. He was there when George Lucas hand-picked him to head up the computer animation division of Lucasfilm that would eventually become known as Pixar. He was there when a divorce changed the financial destiny of that group, forcing the sale to Steve Jobs. He was there through the early successes, the failures, the scares, and the innovative Hail Mary plays that created a culture. It’s a culture that he nurtured through Pixar’s merger with Disney, and it’s a culture that he introduced to Walt Disney Animation that helped it to return to its former glory. He’s still there today, overseeing both Pixar and Disney Animation, implementing the lessons he’s learned after attempting every book and scrap of wisdom on the subject of management and innovation and discovering that most of what’s out there is crap.
In short, Ed Catmull learned the hard way everything that made his operations a success. This book is his way of offering the fruits of those labors to the rest of the world.
While I don’t pretend to be anywhere near as smart or successful as all that, I’ve gone through more than my fair share of books full of empty platitudes, hoping for something with substance that I could directly apply to my daily life, both at work and at home. This book fulfilled exactly that hope, and it made me realize along the way two impossibilities in my life. I wish I’d had this book 20 years ago, and I wish I could have worked with this man at Pixar. But as neither is possible, at least I can benefit from his wisdom, with the bonus of having an inside look at the history of Pixar and its projects to hammer home the points he makes. This is a quality book, told by exhibiting an ideal that made Pixar work: candor. He talks about meeting the mandates of change while staying true to the core of the ideas upon which foundations were built. He talks about the elements that help creative people stay creative. He discusses how ideas can be attacked in the name of forging the best version of a project without attacking the people involved. Everything from the layout and design of Pixar’s headquarters to the concept of letting everyone have the opportunity to stop the engine of progress if it means implementing a change for the better and beyond… it’s all here.
This is one of those books that pretty much demands a paper version because you’re encouraged at nearly every turn to highlight or annotate. I don’t even do that to books, but I feel like this one makes it necessary. Nothing is sugarcoated, nor is there any smoke being blown. It’s straight talk, a professional’s honest answers to some of the most difficult questions of life and business. At its core is people, how to work with them, how to keep them happy so they’ll work with you. It’s the kind of work that’s eye-opening precisely because it seems like common sense the way it’s presented, even though at every turn he’s reminding us how much innovation went into these concepts. If I could download this into the brains of management and HR personnel at every company, I’d do so in a heartbeat.